Every morning Kalavati gets heavily packed on the bus. She drives from her village of Somanahalli to one of the many industrial areas outside the Indian IT city of Bangalore. With them on the 45-minute journey: a five-liter canister with disinfectant, two spray machines and a protective suit. “Towing is the hardest thing about the new job,” she says on the phone.
Since June – the end of the strict lockdown in India – the mother of three adult children has been working as a hygiene expert. It disinfects corridors and work surfaces in companies and shops. For individual customers, she sprays their motorcycles and auto rickshaws.
For Kalavati, who, like many South Indian women, is only addressed by her first name, this job is an opportunity to earn money quickly and easily, a way out of her unemployment. Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete lockdown on March 23, she was forced to close the canteen she had run with her husband for ten years.
At lunchtime, employees from the adjoining telecommunications offices and the electronics, chemical and textile companies ate here. The couple earned around 1000 rupees a day from the canteen, the equivalent of eleven euros.
At least 100 million people in India lost their jobs during the pandemic. Women were disproportionately affected. This is also due to the fact that they are increasingly working in gastronomy, cosmetics, education, housework and care. Even before the corona crisis, they made up only a quarter of the working population, according to official statistics.
In the meantime, this share has fallen by 13 percent compared to the two percent for men, analyzes development economist Mitali Nikore, who advises the World Bank, among others.
But many Indians got creative in this exceptional situation. After the lockdown you can see new mobile phone shops in villages, and chefs report that they have set up food stalls for themselves, there are new delivery services. The pandemic has also generated new professions.
But many Indians got creative out of necessity in this exceptional situation. After the lockdown, a few attended workshops to open cell phone repair shops in their home villages; a service for which you often had to drive to the next larger city.
And in addition to the disinfection work, corona test laboratories increasingly need people to enter the data or assistants who take blood. You don’t have to be a carer or nurse to do this – according to the Economic Times, that alone could create 20,000 jobs.
“I heard about the hygiene job from our village elder for the first time,” says 40-year-old Kalavati. The social enterprise Labournet had contacted village assemblies in states such as Odisha or Karnataka from May. So far, together with the central government, you have trained 450 people from rural areas as hygiene specialists. It should be more than 5000.
Labournet helps people in the informal sector to set up a business and offers further training. Lipsa Bharati, one of Labournet’s advisors, is certain that many companies will have an increased need for disinfection even after the pandemic.
The company trained Kalavati how to properly disinfect them while protecting themselves from the virus and arranging cleaning jobs. Companies can register their needs via an app – and cleaners like Kalavati accept the order. Labornet is not an NGO. Kalavati has to buy her own equipment worth the equivalent of 28 euros. If the company mediates the contract, they retain a 20 percent commission fee. If the forces seek orders for themselves, they retain five percent.
In front of the office in the industrial area, Kalavati puts on her blue protective suit, puts on a mask and glasses, and fills the disinfectant into her spray machine. “I like this job, it makes me feel independent,” she says. “As a woman, people trust me and let me into their offices.”
Since June she has cleaned more than 100 offices, shops, small businesses and businesses, as well as cars, scooters and auto rickshaws. She earns around 500 rupees a day, she says, the equivalent of 5.50 euros. This is well above the country’s minimum wage and roughly comparable to their share of the wages in the canteen. And she still helps her husband in the little kiosk he opened this summer. Instead of lunch, he now sells tea, fruit and crackers for the offices.
Usually, cleaning work in India is not only poorly paid, but also stigmatized. Kalavati says she doesn’t feel discriminated against or in danger because of Corona. In addition: It seems that in times of the pandemic cleaning workers are given a different priority; as if they were protecting society from the virus.
She is proud to have found a job, says Kalavati. “Not only do I earn money for my family, but I also prevent the infection from spreading,” she says. But how long she will carry out this work also depends on the pandemic. She hopes to be able to reopen her canteen in the industrial area next year – with hygiene protection, of course.
Translation: Fiona Weber-Steinhaus
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